Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The Echinoblog greets you from Paris France where I am currently working with my colleagues at the world famous Le Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle where I am working with my colleagues on starfish in the collections of the museum!   For my past blogs about Paris-click here!

Much of what I do is a mixture of new cutting edge research and very classical, old-fashioned stuff. 

Essentially, there are massive collections of starfish (and other invertebrates) in the museum which are part of biodiversity surveys, expeditions, and exploration of various exotic locales throughout the world-Antarctica, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar to name a few...

I see a lot of this material as preserved material in buckets that look like this..
This material may look brown and unappealing, but it is a rich treasure trove of scientific data for the modern evolutionary biologist.  Research endeavors from this kind of collection includes:
  • Describing New Taxa, including genera and species! 
  • Extracting DNA and "barcoding" populations to study relationships across different areas (ie biogeography)
  • Extracting DNA and studying evolutionary relationships among different species
  • Discovering parasites in their hosts!
  • Studying the full sizes of a species to see how they change. (e.g., think of caterpillars to butterflies to realize how this is important)
  • Ecological Modelling
And there's probably no end to the number of potential projects. Mostly, I'm involved with the top two kinds of projects-but I've seen them all done.

In contrast though, sometimes there's a lot that's important from a historical and scientific perspective to see some of the original material figured and illustrated from major scientific papers and books!  The MNHN is no slouch where historical persons have left their mark.. Click here to see an older post about some of the labels still bearing the Lamarck's wrting! 

Here for example is a photograph from a Plate in a famous starfish monograph from 1894 by Edmond Perrier showing Brisinga endecacnemos
And here is the original specimen as it appears today-still largely intact and looks just like it does in the book..
while not figured, here's a rather striking display jar for the 50-rayed Antarctic Labidiaster annulatus..
Often times, my research trips (and those of other scientists to the museum)  fuse the old and the new. And go something like this:
  1. You find something new in the collections, 
  2. Sequence it for its DNA (or analyze its external appearance), discover it is close to an existing species...
  3. Compare the specimen to a historical voucher (often called a type) to see if it conforms to the established definition. Is it a new species?  A rarely seen species? 
  4. Publish!
There are any number of complications.. 

Types can be missing, analyses reveal unexpected results and of course new material is ALWAYS turning up in museums.. Sometimes new specimens can completely support a dubiously defined new species or instantly show how a recently described species is in fact just a variable individual of a known species..

Okay! But enough about work!   Paris is a delightful city and I would be remiss if I did not share some of its charms..some not so subtle...

For example, this ammonite is already pretty cool "as-is" 
But then you realize WHERE it is..and it just has an awesome new twist! 

Every good city has geology to be found in the unlikeliest of places... For example here is fossilifeous limestone used as floor stones on the Gare d'Lest train station..

Can you see the cross-sections through various shells and other invertebrates??  Unseen by thousands of persons a day??

Tucked away in various parts of the city are weird little fun moments like this one... (near Les Halles)

And where would we be if we didn't show some French food porn!   Y'know what's amazing about this? The "pink" donuts in the US have famously adopted the description "pink flavor"..

But in Paris?  not only can you get them warm-but they are RASBERRY. Tasty!

Some Turkish Delight...
And some very tantalizing cooking Macarons
We'll see you next week!

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